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The sing-song Florida State chant that provided the soundtrack for college football for the good part of a generation has been muted. The gold helmets, elite talent and assembly line of NFL stars that were inherent to Florida State are now firmly part of its history. It’s a history that FSU is stuck in, which is the problem with their upcoming coaching search.
The Florida State football program is facing a crisis, as a program steeped in lore inexplicably got so entrenched in the past that college football has passed them by. Here’s the bad news for Florida State fans in the wake of firing Willie Taggart: The university and athletic department are horribly positioned to catch up.
Florida State should be an elite destination for a college football coach who can roll out of bed and win double-digit games. But it’s unlikely that a high-end Power Five coach would risk leaving a stable situation for Florida State right now, as it’s still being run like it’s 1988.
Florida State football is a monster truck with a rusted-out four-cylinder engine. FSU is shiny and imposing from the outside, but so antiquated administratively that many top coaches will be scared to even take a test drive. “Even though it’s a trainwreck because of the university’s dysfunction, it’s still a top-10 job,” said a collegiate official.
That’s the dichotomy facing the coaches who FSU will attempt to lure. The problem with Florida State is that the university’s mismanagement of the athletic department for decades has undercut the attractiveness of the football job.
How did we get here? A pivotal touchstone would be when athletic director Stan Wilcox left FSU for the NCAA in August of 2018.
First of all, no sane person voluntarily goes and works at the NCAA in this era, especially from a high-end ACC job. Wilcox’s departure was widely viewed in the industry as him running for greener pastures. Or any pasture. And the fact that FSU swung and missed on so many athletic director candidates to replace him speaks volumes. They ended up with an internal candidate named David Coburn from the campus administration because they struck out so hard. He went from interim to full time in May of this year, and all of college athletics chuckled along while FSU buried itself deeper by anchoring down with one of its own.
None of the established candidates for this job know David Coburn, which means they will be hesitant to work for him. That’s mostly because he’s not expected to be there long term. Neither is university president John Thrasher, who is expected to retire after this year. That’s not to mention shadow AD Andy Miller from Seminole Boosters, who is also planning to retire. No one ever really knew who was in charge at Florida State. And for coaching candidates, well, they still won’t.
The new Florida State coach is projecting to jump off a plank and hope it works out at a place that needs a DeLorean to catch up. To established coaches who preach alignment, stability and relationships, that’s a non-starter. Urban Meyer’s name shouldn’t be mentioned here, and that has nothing to do with Coburn’s clumsy “hit by a bus” comments that exposed his naïveté to the nature of coaching searches.
Meyer would be more likely to go back to the MAC than walk into the administrative mess at Florida State.
Also, Florida State finally announced a restructuring to bring the Seminole Boosters into the athletic department. This is stuff that’s kept FSU so lodged in the past, as this transition should have happened back when SMU was giving out cars to recruits.
What happens when you have this level of administrative uncertainty? You end up paying more than $3 million to hire Willie Taggart (in addition to another $1.3 million to South Florida for the remainder of that deal) and then fork over more than $20 million to buy out him and his entire staff. That’s not just expensive ineptitude, it’s historic.
Here’s a list of candidates for Florida State, written with caution that the best candidates may not want to waltz into that mess. With football coasting for so many years, FSU never was in a hurry to catch up. Now that they’re so far behind – and all of college football is laughing at their historic buyout hemorrhages – we’re about to find out what coach thinks they can revive the past.
1. James Franklin, Penn State – We wrote this morning on Yahoo Sports that Franklin is USC’s likely top target. It’s reasonable to think FSU fired Taggart so soon because they wanted a jump on top candidates. Franklin has the experience, skill and recruiting cachet to revive the Seminoles. Does he risk the administrative migraines? His buyout is only $1 million, but his salary is $5 million and FSU would have to overpay.
2. Mario Cristobal, Oregon – Andy Miller and the Seminole Boosters could get invited to the Eugene Chamber of Commerce for an Economic Stimulus Award if Cristobal goes there. They’d have to pay $9 million up until Jan. 14, in addition to the $3 million they paid for Taggart. Cristobal is a Florida native and has long coveted this job. Does he leave stable AD Rob Mullens and the burgeoning program for the unknown in Tallahassee?
3. Matt Rhule, Baylor – He’s certainly navigated some messes before in his career, as he revived Baylor in the wake of sanctions. Rhule has learned with Pat Kraft at Temple and Mack Rhoades at Baylor how important alignment is in a coaching job. The alignment at FSU is not immediately visible.
4. P.J. Fleck, Minnesota – His buyout is $4 million, which isn’t insurmountable. Fleck has made both Western Michigan (13-1 in 2016) and Minnesota (8-0) relevant in a four-year span by going undefeated deep into the season, which shows he can do more with less. It’s the first time either has been on the national stage in generations. What could he do with the talent and brand of FSU?
5. Matt Campbell, Iowa State – The $6 million buyout would be a factor. The question lingers as to whether Campbell would leave his Midwestern roots when a Big Ten or NFL job could come calling.
6. Mike Norvell, Memphis – Because all of the above coaches have stable situations, none would sprint to Tallahassee. Norvell loves Memphis and has been paid well above Group of Five market at $2.6 million, but this is the caliber of opportunity he’s been waiting for. The timing here is good for Norvell, as he just had the eyes of the college football world on the job he’s done at Memphis this weekend. Bonus for cash-strapped FSU: Norvell’s buyout is only $500,000.
7. Mark Stoops, Kentucky – Don’t be surprised if this name garners serious interest. Stoops spent three years at FSU earlier this decade and has shown he can run a capable and professional program. There’s not much sizzle to Stoops, but FSU needs to find stability more than sizzle.
8. Scott Satterfield, Louisville – Want a coach to come in and fix a chronically underachieving and undisciplined program? Well, Satterfield just did that at Louisville, taking over a 2-10 program and having them 5-3 this season. Does he aim higher? The buyout is $5 million, which isn’t untenable.
9. Bryan Harsin, Boise State – Seminoles officials saw up close what a Harsin team looks like, as the Broncos upset FSU in the opener this season. Harsin’s 78 percent winning percentage is among the elite in college football, and he clearly could instill the needed discipline and offensive polish. The biggest question: Could he jump from Boise to the deep South?
10. Luke Fickell, Cincinnati – He’s headed toward back-to-back 10-win seasons and brings football sensibilities that would resonate at FSU. This would be another culture leap, as Fickell has essentially never lived outside the state of Ohio. It’s hard to argue with a coach who has gone 18-3 the past two years.
11. Tony Elliott or Brent Venables, Clemson – If FSU were to go the assistant coach route, the first glance would be at Clemson. If they wanted an accomplished offensive mind, they’d look at Elliott, who has been the most coveted offensive coach the past few years in the sport. Venables has been notoriously picky, but a job the caliber of FSU could move him to change his mind.
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